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The Carolina Panthers Should Be Seen as More Than a Dark-Horse Candidate For Deshaun Wastson

Liam McKeone
Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson / Bob Levey/Getty Images
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After a few weeks of no movement on the front, it seems the Houston Texans are not in any hurry to trade Deshaun Watson despite the star quarterback's request. Which makes sense. Even if it appears clear to everybody that the relationship is broken beyond repair, the Texans are not going to cost themselves anything by waiting and seeing if Watson cools off after a month or two. Watson is still so good that he will fetch the same price in April as he would right now, and if there's even the slimmest glimmer of hope that he might agree to stay, Houston will hold onto him.

Nonetheless, an eventual trade does feel inevitable. The team just released J.J. Watt, after all. Unless Watson publicly mends fences, it's safest to assume he'll be in a different uniform in September. But given Houston's public stance is that they aren't going to trade the superstar, nobody really knows what the asking price will be yet, and therefore it is hard to truly know which teams could offer the strongest package for Watson's services.

The New York Jets have been pegged as a clear frontrunner in that regard, even without official knowledge of the price tag, because they can offer four first-round picks over the next two drafts and a young QB with potential in Sam Darnold. The Miami Dolphins also have such a quarterback and two first-`rounders to offer this year, including Houston's own pick that comes in at No. 3 overall. After those two, it's really anyone's guess.

One team that emerged as a darkhorse candidate among official NFL insider circles was the Carolina Panthers. Matt Rhule just finished Year 1 of his six-year deal and progress was made, but it quickly became obvious that Teddy Bridgewater was not a long-term answer for the franchise. They'll be stuck in mediocrity until they find a franchise quarterback. Watson certainly is that, he's a hero in the area, and the Panthers have his former QB coach from Clemson on staff. The motivation is clear. The question is if they have the means to get a deal done.

As previously stated, there has been no report of what the asking price for Watson will be. All we have are educated guesses, murmurs, and rumblings. The below tweet from longtime Texans beat writer John McClain from a few weeks back is an educated guess, but few in sports media are more qualified to make that kind of stab given McClain has been on the Texans beat since the team was founded. So his word is a good starting point.

What is most interesting about that price tag is that a new quarterback is not included. If the Texans don't care about acquiring a starting QB in the trade for Watson, that changes the paradigm dramatically. And, if Houston really does want two young defensive starters in the deal, the Panthers very well could put together the best package for Watson.

First, in terms of draft picks, Carolina could offer a solid combination. They have the No. 8 and No. 41 overall picks in this year's draft. They'd be happy to offer up next year's first two picks if it means getting Watson. That isn't as attractive as the Jets or Dolphins' pick combinations, but it's a good starting point.

Which brings us to the defensive starters. The Panthers might not be able to put the strongest draft pick offer on the table, but there may not be another team in the league realistically in the running for Watson who has the kind of defensive talent the Texans could be looking for. That is because Carolina spent literally every single one of their 2020 draft picks on defensive players. A starting point in a Watson trade would probably be last year's No. 7 overall pick, Derrick Brown, and outstanding rookie safety Jeremy Chinn. To really get the deal done, the Panthers might have to give up budding pass rusher Brian Burns, too.

That would be a lot, but neither the Jets nor the Dolphins have the ability to match what Carolina can offer in terms of defensive talent. New York has exactly one good young defender, Quinnen Williams. The Dolphins have a good defense but their two best players, Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, are both in their late 20s. Any other wildcard squad in on Watson trade talks, like the Broncos or the Bears, can't give up what the Texans are looking for without completely gutting their respective defenses. Carolina would have to give up a lot but have invested so much in that side of the ball over the last two drafts that the impact is mitigated.

If the Texans decide to auction off Watson for a historic haul of picks, Carolina won't be able to contend with other organizations in the running. But if Houston really does want a balance of picks and defensive talent to begin their rebuild, Carolina is the best option. They have exactly the sort of cornerstone pieces the Texans would want, their draft picks aren't too bad, and they're in a different conference than Houston. Watson would almost definitely give the go-ahead on a Panthers trade given his aforementioned connections within the team and region. If Houston wants star power, Carolina could even offer up Christian McCaffrey. There are a lot of different ways to get this deal done with both sides leaving happy.

We're still probably a long way out from any trade being executed. But as things stand right now, the Panthers should be considered more than a dark-horse team. They aren't front-runners. Not yet. But Carolina will absolutely be in the mix.

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